National Gallery Gala ‘Empire Ball’ in poor taste

From ‘National Gallery Singapore drops the theme of its gala dinner following public criticism’, 21 Sept 16, article by Huang Lijie, ST

The National Gallery Singapore has dropped the theme, The Empire Ball, from its upcoming fund-raising gala after having drawn flak from the public for it.

Those who spoke out against the theme say the use of the politically fraught term, “empire”, which carries with it the idea of colonial oppression, is in poor taste for a celebratory event. The fund-raiser is now known simply as the National Gallery Singapore Gala.

…The gala’s theme was publicised on its Facebook page earlier this week and since Tuesday (Sept 20), it has drawn public feedback, including comments from artists and curators, about the theme being insensitive and dismissive of the violence and scars of imperialism.

Artist-curator Alan Oei, 40, who is also the artistic director of the independent arts centre The Substation, wrote to the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth on Tuesday, urging that the museum reconsiders how the gala is framed.

He said in the letter that the historically fraught term “empire” is usually associated with the “shameful, oppressive epoch” of imperial rule, although there are some like historian Niall Ferguson, who recognise that “Empire has also been a positive force”.

So far, no Singaporean has rejected the prestigious OBE (Order of the British EMPIRE) award because it reeked of bloody colonial oppression. We also don’t boycott Daiso or Sushi Tei because Japanese icons give us painful reminders of the days of the Occupation. Yet somehow, a certain generation of Singaporeans still suffers from a debilitating ‘colonial hangover’.

In 2013, those who still reel from the after-effects of a ‘shameful, oppressive epoch’ complained about an archway in Queenstown proclaiming ‘Long Live the Queen’.  Despite such disdain for the Crown that once ruled us, we still feted the Royal Couple when they came to visit. Raffles Hotel, a distinctive reminder of a traumatic era still stands till this day, where Singaporeans and visitors alike, seemingly ignorant of the evil Empire’s decadent history, continue to sip Singapore Slings at the Long Bar.

With the recent Brexit, you would expect chills from the ghost of a marauding Union Jack to wane, but noooo shame on you National Gallery, you might as well name your gala ‘The White Gentleman’s Club’. Take the ‘The Time of Empire‘ tour if you dare, and experience sheer misery while strolling down Coleman street and its sickeningly imposing ‘early colonial architecture’.

Today, mention the words ‘Empire’ and ‘Ball’ in the same sentence and most Singaporeans would not think of white superiority, lawn cricket or opium trading, but a galactic spherical spaceship cum weapon of planetary destruction. Well nothing that a Death Star can do that the horrible British Empire can’t top, eh.

NAC Bin Centre costing $470K, mostly on consultation

From ‘Inadequate financial controls, weak governance uncovered in AGO report’, 26 July 2016, article in CNA

…For instance, in the audit of the National Arts Council (NAC), the Auditor-General found from its checks of contracts for the Victoria Theatre and Victoria Concert Hall Redevelopment project that 47 out of 164 variation works were carried out before approvals were given. The delays in obtaining approval were up to 3.5 years, it added.

“The large number of instances indicated a breakdown in the controls put in place to ensure that variations were properly justified and approved before works commenced,” it added.

AGO also found that NAC had paid a consultancy fee of S$410,000 for the construction of a bin centre costing S$470,000. “There was inadequate assessment on the reasonableness of the exceptionally high consultancy fee, at 87.2 per cent of the cost of construction,” it said.

The Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth (MCCY) had told AGO that the construction of the bin centre was more complex and required significantly more design expertise, technical consultancy services and effort to coordinate with multiple parties and these were the reasons for the fee to be above the norm.

The NAC Bin Centre is the EC of all bin centres. To foreign workers who’ve been found living in HDB bin centres, or more commonly known as ‘rubbish dumps’, the NACBC is the pinnacle of refuse repository luxury. For near half a million, you get a classical design, odour control, maybe even air-conditioning and wi-fi. Right in the heart of the Civic District too.

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Imagine how much $40K could do for the arts scene, or local graphic novels like The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye. Instead of channeling resources into promoting a vibrant local culture, the NAC decided to focus their energies into making a rubbish collection centre ‘blend in’ with the help of some overpaid consultants, and in doing so have unwittingly made the NAC Bin centre a star attraction, as Instagrammable as the departed Punggol lone tree. Soon it’ll make it into the TripAdvisor Top Things to See List, favorited by those with a morbid fascination with the logistics of rubbish. Step aside, Supreme Court Jail Cell, this is next big thing to hit the Civic District since thousands queued for hours to see a dead politician’s body.

We’ll never look at bin centres the same way again. NAC has taken the humble bin centre from its smelly eyesore roots, pumped in an extreme makeover and created an icon for architecture junkies everywhere. Some foresight may have gone into this; you never know when one can repurpose a lowly bin centre into a hipster cafe, or even a RC meeting room. Yes, versatility is built into its price tag. One day it’s piling trash, the next it’s selling profiteroles or artisan hot dogs. For those who see utility out of having a deserted train station, a 1 billion dollar artificial Gardens, a giant spinning wheel or high-end sandy turf inside the Sports Hub, this $40K is worth every peanut – I mean penny.

MDA banning photos of freedom fighters from arts fest

From ‘Photos cut from show’, 24 June 2016, article by Nur Asyiqin Mohamed Salleh, ST

When Iranian photographer Newsha Tavakolian’s exhibition I Know Why The Rebel Sings opened on Wednesday night, black cards took the place of 15 photographs depicting Kurdish female soldiers who had joined the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The Media Development Authority (MDA) had asked that these photographs be removed before a licence could be given for the exhibition, which is part of the Singapore International Festival of Arts’ pre- festival programme, The O.P.E.N.

Responding to queries from The Straits Times, MDA said the festival team had submitted about 150 of Newsha’s photos for the exhibition. “These included photographs of members from a terrorist-linked organisation, who had committed acts of violence to further their cause, for example suicide bombing.”

MDA asked that these photographs be removed from the show. “Singapore takes a firm stand against extremism and will not allow photographs that undermine public order, national security and/ or stability to be displayed,” it said.

It did not name the organisation, but the women in the photographs removed from the exhibition are part of the YPJ, an all-woman offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which seeks to establish an independent Kurdish state in south-east Turkey.

Dear MDA,

I was browsing around at the local library and found this book featuring a photo of an extremist on the front cover. I’m concerned that this may undermine public order and influence readers into strapping bombs to themselves and killing Singaporeans. Please do the necessary. NLB, surely if you could pull out a book on gay penguins you would do the same for this too.

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Dear MDA,

I was shocked and disturbed to find portraits of radicalised Bangladeshis on the MHA website. Please ask your fellow stat board to take down these photos immediately. They are seriously undermining public order. After my kid saw their faces, he insisited on bringing his water pistol to class everyday since.

 Dear MDA,

What is the meaning of this? How did you even let this poster by the Police slip by without mosaicing the said terrorist’s face?

Dear MDA,

Please take action against the Straits Times. Although nobody has seen the face of the Chinese Singaporean taking up arms against Syria named Wang Yuandongyi, an editorial on which his capture was based on (April 2 2016) featured a photo of Kurdish Peshmerga fighters during training, which clearly glamorises terrorist-linked violence. I enclose the artistically-taken photo and offending page herein as evidence. Do you want more brainwashed citizens to take up this extremist cause because of the ST’s inexcusable undermining of our national security?

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Dear MDA,

Thanks to your decisive action and making your censorship newsworthy, I googled ‘I Know When the Rebel Sings‘ and found the uncensored version online. Now I know which sites to block in case my children stumble upon this image and get hypnotised into joining a foreign rebel army.


Now you see me

The Singapore version:


Amos Yee parody sketch cut from Chestnuts 50 show

From ‘MDA on cuts to Chestnuts 50: script was sent in late’, 20 Sep 15, article by Akshita Nanda, ST

The Media Development Authority Singapore says the script for Chestnuts 50 was sent in late so “several problematic segments concerning an ongoing court case” could not be processed in time. It was responding to writer-director Jonathan Lim’s sketch parody show showing at the Drama Centre Theatre until Sept 27.

Last Friday, the show ended with Lim saying his team was told just hours before the opening show a day earlier to remove about 40 minutes of a central sketch inspired by the case of teen blogger Amos Yee, or forfeit their arts entertainment licence.

…Speaking to Life, Lim says he was surprised by the reason MDA gave to cut the Yee sketch, since another segment referencing an ongoing court case was passed. The current Chestnuts 50 performance includes a part inspired by the City Harvest mega-church case, where its founder and five others are alleged to have misused church funds.

*Warning: spoilers ahead*

I was fortunate enough to catch Chestnuts’ second performance last Friday. When Jonathan Lim made his announcement near the finale about the last minute change requested by MDA, I wasn’t sure if it was yet another of the many ‘meta’ gags made at the MDA’s expense. It turned out that he was serious and the Amos Yee gag was snipped, which I was looking forward to based on what I saw in their teaser materials online. If MDA had also decided to tone down the fiery ‘bromance’ between LKY and Lim Chin Siong in another major sketch, it would be a case of Chestnuts being ‘roasted on an open fire’, and the only thing left watching would be Jonathan channeling Kit Chan in drag.

According to Lim’s Facebook page, MDA’s reason given then was that it was an ‘ongoing legal case’. As for the City Harvest sketch, the slightest of changes were made to characters’ names, but everything else about the plot was rib-ticklingly obvious. Even Mediacorp’s The Noose managed to get away with mocking Sun Ho’s music career. And they’re probably itching to do an Amos one too, pending MDA’s green light.

The question would be: Legal case, SO WHAT? Has a gag order been imposed like how the AGC told the public to ‘refrain from commenting’ about last year’s Thaipusam incident? Furthermore, it seems a different set of standards apply to social media, where it’s a Amos Yee lampoon free-for-all. Even Amos himself managed to get his Facebook posts updated while he was in remand. Then there’s this Tumblr blog about Amos’ fashion sense.

Not to mention Youtube. Here’s examples of Amos parody videos which MDA apparently decided is OK for general viewing, ongoing legal case or not.

MDA also beat their personal record of late notification. Last year they issued a NC-16 advisory and licence to the Dim Sum Dollies just 3 days before the opening show. In their press release, they said that conducted the script review ‘expeditiously’, claiming that they received the script on 1 Dec 2014, 10 days before opening. Not so lucky for Elangovan’s ‘Stoma’ though, which was banned completely.

To be fair, maybe the MDA is indeed overburdened by regulatory duties, though some would say they brought it upon themselves, having to nanny not just films, radio, plays, video games and books but political videos and ‘sociopolitical’ websites as well. A previous attempt to introduce a ‘self-regulation’ scheme for arts groups to classify their own productions turned out to be an abject failure. So this last-minute censorship and its excuses about late submissions is like the MDA giving the arts community a retaliatory shrug: “We gave you a chance to regulate ‘ownself’ and cut the red tape, but you didn’t want to, so this is what you get’.

Maybe there is still hope for the Amos Yee sketch if Chestnuts decides to launch an exclusive on Youtube instead. The show is otherwise still worth catching without Amos inside. Hopefully this piece of news doesn’t make the ‘gao lak’ experience a ‘gao wei’ one.

SIFA film withdrawn due to cut Molotov Cocktail scene

From ‘Singapore International Festival of Arts withdraws two films from Open event’, 18 June 15, article by Mayo Martin, Today

Organisers of the Singapore International Festival Of Arts’ (SIFA) pre-festival event The OPEN have withdrawn two films from its movie line-up after the Media Development Authority Singapore (MDA) said these required edits before it could be screened.

The films were Tony Manero by Chilean director Pablo Larrain and A German Youth by French film-maker Jean-Gabriel Periot.

…In a statement, organisers said they were informed yesterday (June 17) that both movies required a scene each to be cut due to sexual and mature content, respectively. Rather than screen a film with edits, the organisers have chosen to pull out both films “to respect the integrity of the directors’ vision and craft”.

The two scenes in question were a fellatio scene in Tony Manero and a scene featuring a video on how to make a Molotov cocktail in A German Youth. Both films had received an R21 rating on the condition that the scenes be edited.

…SIFA director Ong Keng Sen told TODAY: “The objection to the fellatio scene was that it was too graphic and extreme, but I told them it should be put into context on why people are behaving this way. It was about how violence and decadence has been imprinted in the human being.”

Meanwhile, A German Youth is a documentary that was shown at this year’s Berlin Film Festival. It traces the founding of the militant Red Army Faction and Baader-Meinhof Group.

Ong questioned the objection to the Molotov cocktail scene, citing how the information on making one is already available on the Internet. “I tried Googling how to make it and it’s all within the first four entries. We have to ask ourselves if these censorship guidelines are still applicable when all of these are available on the Internet,” he said.

Well, you can google ‘nude uncensored sex’ on the Internet and get exactly what you want but that doesn’t mean we should scrap censorship altogether, be it for mainstream movies or ‘niche’ festival films. Cutting out a blowjob scene is probably expected of MDA, but snipping a scene teaching you how to make a homemade bomb is strange given that we do allow films featuring ‘occasional recreational drug use’, as well as cinematic step-by-step manuals on how to design and operate improvised weapons of fiery destruction, nevermind if these actually work in real life.

This scene from Salt starring Angelina Jolie, for example, tells you how to escape from a room conveniently stocked with volatile chemicals and a fire extinguisher by assembling an instant flamethrower in less than a minute.

The one and only Macgyver can blow people up using a video camera and silly putty. The whole series, in fact, is about the man making weapons out of scraps.

Which suggests that it’s OK if you’re the good guy making an explosive out of baking soda, detergent and shoelaces, but not if you’re intending to use it in a riot against the Authority. If that’s the case, we should also censor films and TV featuring scenes of people smashing bottles in half and turning them into stabbing weapons. We already banned beer bottles in Tekka hawker centre for the exact same reason anyway.

In fact, in the fifties before we had videotapes not to mention Youtube, the ST even revealed an old-timey homemade bomb recipe in one of their riot reports: Petroleum jelly/trade rubber, petrol, cotton fuse. Today, you can experiment with DIY detonators using nothing but ingredients and accessories bought from Daiso. You could build a bomb in pyjamas over your kitchen sink without having to put on goggles, labcoat or safety boots. You don’t need an obscure film from a festival that few people care about to transform us into amateur terrorists overnight.

Other than cracking down on festival films glamourising bomb-making, terrorism, explicit sex and homosexuality, our censors also objected to themes that potentially threaten religious and racial order. In 2004, we banned ‘The Final Solution‘, an Indian documentary that was considered ‘inflammatory’ because it dealt with communal riots between Hindus and Muslims. Singapore’s very own ‘To Singapore With Love’ was a liability to national security. I’m not surprised no one has thought of making a film based on the true story of Mas Selamat’s escape. It would probably be banned as well because it puts a certain minister in a bad light, and teaches viewers how to slip out of a toilet and cross over to Malaysia amid tight security, without having to assemble a single Molotov cocktail while at it.

Then there were the weird ones. In 2008, we banned ‘Bakushi’, a Japanese film about rope bondage. 6 years later, we passed ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ without cuts on the big screen with an R(21) rating. Perhaps there is hope for fetish fans after all. Still, it’s ridiculously ironic how the cut Molotov cocktail scene is categorised here as ‘mature content’, when the censors obviously think adults are not mature enough to handle it, that people would suddenly become ‘self-radicalised’ after watching a foreign film, go raid liquor and hardware stores, then fly a private plane above the city and drop little homemade bombs causing death, destruction and chaos everywhere.

Pearl Bank apartments to be gazetted for conservation

From ‘Why the sudden decision to conserve Pearl Bank?’, 5 June 2015, ST Forum

(Loke Chee Meng): I AM surprised by the Urban Redevelopment Authority’s (URA) decision to consider conserving the Pearl Bank apartments based on a submission by the owners (“URA sees merit in conservation plan for Pearl Bank”; last Saturday, and “Conservation ‘can unlock Pearl Bank’s value'”; Monday).

Until recently, Pearl Bank would have met the wrecking ball had the owners’ last attempt at a collective sale been successful. The owners’ representative made no bones about conservation being hatched up as an afterthought to salvage the dwindling value of the ageing property after previous collective sale attempts failed.

Integral to this conservation deal is a consideration for an increase in the property’s gross floor area. If this increase were not granted, would the owners still be keen on pursuing conservation?

URA’s principle in conserving the building befuddles me. It was perfectly willing all along to allow Pearl Bank to be redeveloped after a collective sale. Why does the URA now deem the development worthy of conservation, after three attempts at a collective sale failed?

Conservation rules should not be so arbitrary that they can be exploited for self-interests. It is the authorities’ responsibility to proactively identify potential conservation buildings, as owners would make submissions only as and when it benefits them.

With more leasehold properties ageing, we may see more frivolous submissions, if the authorities do not step in, and this will undermine the process of conserving genuine historical buildings.

The 40 year old horseshoe-shaped Pearl Bank Apartment (PBA) was once described as a 38 storey 3-D jigsaw puzzle, housing 272 units, plus 8 penthouses, in a single  block. One ST writer waxed poetic about its ‘cylindrical design inspired by rounded river pebbles, fabricated to exact tolerances with just the right balance between tightness and looseness’. Its interlocking facade has also been compared to Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation, an example of the style known as ‘Brutalism‘. Though described as a complex structure created by an alien space race to inspire us pathetic earthlings, it was really the brainchild of local pioneer Tan Cheng Siong.

Unlike other conserved buildings which include shophouses and bungalows, PBA may not be aesthetically pleasing to the eye at first glance, which could be said the same of other buildings of the era, including People’s Park Complex and the vertical slum that is Golden Mile Complex. They’re like the ugly forbears of the sleek condos and DBSS flats that we have now, but like the recently gazetted national monument Jurong Town Hall, what ultimately matters if how influential and aspirational the structures were at the time, even if they look like discarded engine parts of a Borg mothership. Not so lucky was Eng Cheong towers, also a child of the 70’s, which was torn to the ground to make way for the Southbank development. Another relic that was quietly removed from the face of the earth, as I was surprised to discover, was the 7th storey Hotel in Bugis. In its place now lies the Downtown Line Bugis station.

Yet beauty and heritage value alone may not preserve buildings in their entirety. In 2007, a petition was launched against the demolition of the century-old ‘Butterfly House’ at 23 Amber Road, the only bungalow with curved wings and designed by the same Regent Alfred John Bidwell of Raffles Hotel and Goodwood Park fame.  Today, only the porch sans wings remains and it serves as a ‘world-class entrance lobby’ to the 18 storey Aristo condo, described as a juxtaposition of ‘classic charm and modern luxury’.

Personally, it looks like colonial bungalow with a giant concrete tumour sticking out of it. How URA could allow this token monstrosity to exist eludes me. Regent Alfred would rather see his work burnt to ashes, than having a gorgeous house latched onto a condo like a princess forced to carry a tower of bricks on her back. Now that is Brutal. Let’s all pray that PBA doesn’t meet the same fate.

SEA games carnival ping pong table copying artist’s work

From ‘Quirky ping pong table at SEA games carnival resembles work by Singaporean artist’, 6 June 2015 article by Mayo Martin, CNA.

A circular ping pong table at the South-east Asia Games Carnival for children at Sports Hub which bears a striking resemblance to a famous artwork by a Singaporean artist has prompted criticism online.

Cultural Medallion recipient Lee Wen has said he was unaware of it of the table at the Sports Hub. His own interactive artwork, titled Ping Pong Go-Round, has the same circular features, which allow for multiple players. Variations of it have been shown in different exhibitions and fairs such as his solo retrospective in 2012 and last year’s Art Basel Hong Kong. Most recently, it was part of an exhibition of Singapore artists at the ArtScience Museum.

…“I’m trying to find out who’s in charge and talk to them to ask them to stop exhibiting until they settle with me,” he added. “It’s good that they picked up the idea but it’s as if they didn’t think it has been done before. I think they should at least talk to me. I’m thinking of asking for some compensation in terms of artists rights because according to one lawyer I’ve talked to, it’s probably an infringement of copyright.

…The ping pong table in question, called 300° Table Tennis, carries the logo of Atos, a French technology firm appointed by the organising committee to manage the information technology for the Singapore games.

While it forms a “C” and Lee’s work is a complete circle, the latter said his artwork could easily be manipulated and rejigged so that users could enter the central space.

Lawyer George Huang was quoted by the ST (‘Horseshoe shaped ping pong table by SEA games organiser similar to artwork by artist Lee Wen, 5 June 2015’) as saying that Lee’s ping pong table is ‘very simple’ and it’s possible for anyone to come up with the same design independently. Well, everything is obvious on hindsight, George.

According to IPOS, ‘artistic works‘ may be protected under copyright law, but the ‘idea or concept’ of the sport of table tennis isn’t. So what happens when the worlds of art and sport collide and you have an exhibit that’s viewed as ‘artwork’ in a museum, but can also easily pass off as a fancy variation of a traditional game at a sports carnival? If I’m an artist and I put up a ‘performance’ involving a badminton racket with a chapteh instead of a shuttlecock, do I have a case if someone makes it an actual Olympic sport? What if I put people in ridiculous sumo suits and make them play touch rugby? Or captain’s ball. On trampolines?

Ping Pong Go Round isn’t JUST about bouncing balls to one another, of course. The artist himself uses the analogy of a ‘dialogue‘ between players on opposite sides, like a circular conference table. In other reviews, it’s described as a re-invention of the game in the context of ‘contemporary possibilities’. Meaning, instead of playing against one person you could easily switch to another, or play against both simultaneously. There’s not much room to manouevre if you’re in the inner hole with other players, though. So much for ‘broader dialogue’. I could add some crazy rules to the standard gameplay and make it a new sport, or work of art, if I want to. Like playing across 2 table-lengths, playing with two balls simultaneously or you’re only allowed to hit the ball with your batting arm behind and around your back.

Still, It’s a refreshing change from what we usually associate with ‘performance art’, which incidentally was once banned by the NAC in 1994 after someone snipped his pubic hair in public. Lee Wen himself is famous for his ‘Yellow Man’ work as an emphasis on his Chinese ethnicity, where he painted himself yellow from head to toe and described it as ‘wearing a full body mask’, a possible inspiration for the phenomenon known as ‘zentai’ today.

To the layman participating in this ‘interactive artwork’, it’s just crazy ping pong joined in a circle, and probably as fun and innovative as other insane sports mash-ups like roller-frisbee, hockey-golf, basket-polo or bubble-soccer. You’re not going to get inspirations on how to improve your next meeting with the bosses. But hey, ART man.

UPDATE (13 June 15): Sport Singapore acknowledged Lee’s work and has made a goodwill payment, hence resolving the issue amicably.